A giant plume of dust that originated in the Sahara Desert traveled across the Atlantic ocean and into the United States early this week.
The dust cloud first appeared over states in the gulf of Mexico before traveling up into the Midwest. It reached Iowa last weekend, and the EPA issued an air quality forecast for Iowa June 29 placing parts of the state in the “moderate” category. This level of pollution could pose some health risks for a small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution, according to air quality forecasts on AirNow.
The dust plume was part of the Saharan Air Layer, which is a mass of dry, dusty air that forms over the Sahara Desert in the summer and moves over the North Atlantic every few days, according to NOAA. The dust caused the air to appear hazy in parts of the Midwest, especially during sunrise and sunset.
When the wind is strong enough, the dust can reach the United States and be concentrated enough to cause air quality issues. However, the extremely dry air can also help suppress hurricane and tropical storm development over the Atlantic Ocean, and minerals in the dust can help replenish nutrients in rainforest soil when it is able to reach the Amazon River Basin.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an order on March 26 announcing the suspension of the enforcement of environmental compliance reporting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before this change, businesses were required to report and limit all air emissions and water discharges, meet requirement for hazardous waste management and maintain standards for safe drinking water. Businesses that failed to meet these EPA-issued standards could face fines.
The recent order states that factories, power plants, and other facilities are encouraged to keep records of any instances of non-compliance with EPA instituted regulations. However, they will not face any fines for violations as long as the EPA agrees that the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than intentional disregard for the law, is the cause.
In its order, the EPA did not designate an end date for the suspension or address the potential ramifications this decision could have for public health and safety. Allowing industry to police itself could cause air and water pollution to go unchecked and put the safety of drinking water at risk, according to the Iowa Environmental Council.
Compromising access to clean water could make it more difficult for the U.S. healthcare system to provide the sanitary conditions necessary for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic according to the IEC. The Washington Post also reported that the wording of the EPA’s order is broad enough that companies could get away with practices that put public health at risk well into the future.
Regional, state, local and tribal agencies currently have the opportunity to clean up their air on the Environmental Protection Agency’s dollar. The EPA announced last week that it plans on awarding approximately $40 million in grants as part of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act.
These grants will fund projects that reduce diesel emissions from school buses, commercial vehicles, locomotives and non-road equipment and emissions exposure for local communities. The EPA is especially looking to benefit communities that currently have poor air quality and for projects that will engage locals even once the project has ended.
This program began in 2008 and has awarded funds to the Iowa Department of Transportation in the past. The state matched the 2018 DERA allocation of $275,123 with funds from the Volkswagen settlement to put over $500,000 towards cleaning Iowa’s air.
Interested agencies have until March 6 to apply. Those in EPA region 7, including Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska can apply for projects up to $1.5 million.
A new analysis of federal air quality data reveals mixed trends in Iowa’s air quality. On one hand, Iowa cut industrial greenhouse gas emissions 11 percent from 2010 to 2014. On the other, Iowa ranks among the top 20 U.S. states for industrial greenhouse gas and toxic air emissions.
Analysts from the Center for Public Integrity studied EPA data from 2010 to 2014. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources told the Des Moines Register that since 2014 emissions have trended downwards, according to data from their own monitoring stations and facilities.
The Center for Public Integrity found that Iowa’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions dropped 11 percent, from over 60 million metric tons in 2014 to about 54.7 metric tons in 2014. This cut is over five times greater than the 2 percent national average, according to the Register.
Iowa still ranks 19th for industrial emissions, however. Ten Iowa utility or manufacturing companies were among the nation’s top 500 sources of greenhouse gases in 2014. Four of those were MidAmerican coal plants. Since 2014, Iowa utilities have made major investments in renewable energy, particularly wind.
Iowa ranks even higher for toxic air emissions: 17th in the U.S.. From 2010 to 2014, toxic air emissions in Iowa actually increased. The Register found that Climax Molybdenum, a chemical plant in Fort Madison, and four others were responsible for half of Iowa’s toxic emissions in 2014. The paper said Climax Molybdenum was the 10th largest emitter of ammonia in the nation that year.
This week’s segment details a study that found a correlation in asthma reduction and a biodiverse environment.
Biodiverse living spaces can have a positive affect on your child’s health
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
A new study by the USDA Forest Service found that children who lived in areas with more plant biomass or more biodiversity were less likely to develop asthma. Plant biomass refers to the total percentage of plant life, where plant biodiversity refers to the different types of plant life in an area. The Forest Service collaborated with Massey University in New Zealand to track 50,000 children’s health condition using the country’s comprehensive data base that compiles health information data from most New Zealand citizens.
The study concluded that areas with more plant biomass lessened the risk of developing asthma by six percent while areas with more plant biodiversity reduced the risk of developing asthma by seven percent. In 2015, one in twelve Iowans suffered from asthma. The Forest Service study demonstrates the value of a green environment to our health.
For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.
From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.
A new study found that levels of two primary pollutants in the U.S. atmosphere have not been declining as rapidly during recent years as they once were.
Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) studied satellite data and ground level measurements of two smog-forming pollutants: nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Levels of these air pollutants decreased dramatically following the implementation of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. Requirements of that act pushed automakers and energy-producers to develop new technology which curbed the emissions of these two pollutants.
The study found that concentration of these two pollutants in the atmosphere decreased by seven percent each year between 2005 and 2009. However, from 2011 through 2015, the pollutants’ levels only shrunk by 1.7 percent annually.
Helen Worden is a scientist at NCAR and one of the study’s authors. She said to Phys Org, “Although our air is healthier than it used to be in the 80s and 90s, air quality in the U.S. is not progressing as quickly as we thought. The gains are starting to slow down.”
The study noted that the slower decrease in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides was especially severe in the eastern part of the U.S. This finding dispels notions that the slower pace can be attributed to traveling air pollution from countries like China. The positive news is that the slower decline in carbon monoxide, which is primarily emitted by vehicles, is likely due to the fact that major strides have already been made to reduce vehicle emissions. In short, clean air technology related to cars may have reached a kind of plateau.
Scientists are concerned about the human and environmental health impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recent decision to loosen regulations on toxic air pollutants.
The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) require major sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAP), or those pollutants suspected or known to cause cancer or other serious health effects, to use evidence-based pollution-control technologies to keep pollution below federal limits. These evidence-based pollution control technologies are also known as maximum achievable control technologies (MACT). Major sources are defined by the EPA as those facilities that emit more than 10 tons of any one HAP per year or more than 25 tons of a combination of HAP per year. Since then, the EPA has enforced the “once in, always in” policy, meaning that those sources that were regulated by the administration as “major sources,” would always be regulated by the administration under that classification. Until now.
In late January, Scott Pruitt’s EPA rolled back the “once in, always in” policy, thereby allowing major sources to become reclassified as “area source” polluters if they can show that they are emitting toxic air pollutants below the program’s threshold. If these sources are successfully reclassified, they will not be required to use MACT, which will likely make their emission reduction efforts less successful. To boot, hazardous air pollutants regulated by MACT measures include formaldehyde, chlorine and hydrochloric acid, none of which are safe for human inhalation, even in very small amounts.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent research organization, created an interactive map to help U.S. citizens predict which parts of the country are most likely to be adversely impacted by the policy change. Scientists estimate that a minimum of 21 states will see more hazardous air pollution following the change. Low-income areas and communities of color are likely to suffer the most as a result. Their research predicts that 35 out of 41 facilities in Chicago could increase HAP emissions. Health effects associated with HAP emissions include cancer and respiratory illness, among others.
Gretchen Goldman is research director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She made a statement on the organization’s webpage, “The EPA’s political leadership are ditching a successful policy and exposing more Americans to hazardous pollution.”
Carbon emissions reached a record 32.5 giggatons last year after remaining stable for the three previous years. This figure can be thought of as putting 170 million additional cars on the road. The spike in carbon emissions has been attributed to two factors. First, global energy demand increased by 2.1 percent last year. This is double the average 0.9 percent increase over the previous five years. About seventy percent of this demand was met by emission producing fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal. Second, energy efficiency improvements slowed down during 2017.
“The significant growth in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 tells us that current efforts to combat climate change are far from sufficient,” Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director, said to Reuters. He continued, “For example, there has been a dramatic slowdown in the rate of improvement in global energy efficiency as policy makers have put less focus in this area.”
Scientists say the carbon emissions need to peak soon and then decrease dramatically by 2020 in order to meet the international climate goal of keep average global temperature rise lower than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Although carbon emissions increased most places, the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico and Japan all saw reductions in carbon emissions. Surprisingly, U.S. carbon emissions fell by 0.5 percent, more than any other country.
Environmental Action Germany has been filing lawsuits against cities for years to encourage municipalities to implement policies that curb air pollution. German government statistics reveal that some 6,000 people die each year from nitrogen oxide pollution, 60 percent of which comes from vehicles on the road. Diesel engines in particular spew more NOx than gasoline engines and are more popular in Europe.
The ruling does not require communities to ban diesel driving, rather it grants them the legal authority to do so if air pollution in their city remains above the European Union limit for NOx in the air. Seventy German cities surpassed that threshold at least once last year.
Banning diesel vehicles would have negative implications for the country’s automotive industry. Since the ruling, the German government has proposed some measures to decrease pollution and avoid the ban, which include providing free public transportation and refitting existing diesel vehicles to meet clean air standards. However, it is unclear how the government would pay for such measures.
Germany is merely the latest country making a move away from diesel engines. Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens have policies in place to ban diesel vehicles from city centers before 2025.
From 2008 to 2016, the portion of the U.S.’s energy derived from coal decreased from 51 percent to 31 percent. Of those coal units that are still up and running, about 25 percent of them plan to retire or switch to another energy source soon. While some coal units are retiring completely, many of them are switching to natural gas. Either way, the report found that the decreased coal production has provided the following environmental health benefits:
80 percent less sulfur dioxide, a source of acid rain
64 percent less nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog
34 percent less carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas
Scientists estimate these changes have saved residents about $250 billion in public health costs related to breathing polluted air from 2008 to 2016.
The researchers also looked at the challenges faced by economies in former coal-mining areas to learn more about how residents cope with closing plants. The results were decidedly mixed. For example, after one especially dirty plant in Chicago closed down following years of activism, area residents found that the city planned to redevelop the building into a transportation center–posing additional air quality risks. In contrast, an organization in West Virginia is working to train laid off coal-workers in construction, agriculture and solar energy jobs. As the shift to cleaner energy sources continues, the Union of Concerned Scientists call on lawmakers. They write,
“As more coal plants close, the importance of investing in these and other impacted communities will only grow. Policy makers should prioritize economic development and job transition assistance, alongside other investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”